In the last couple of months, I have been falling in love with Sofia all over again. My turbulent love affair with the city has been fairly well documented here – both its shining moments of glory and the rough times, but lately I feel like my crush on it is reaching new heights. There have been a few times in the last weeks, when I haven’t been thoroughly annoyed with it, that I’ve felt like my heart was going to explode with affection.
It’s a combination of things, really, that leads to this renewed enamorment. I was gone for a few months, so being here still has a fresh new feeling to it – I get to hang around my house, see old friends and family, walk my favorite streets and pop into my usual cafés and bars. A bit like falling back into the arms of an old and comfortable lover, after being away and forgetting the reasons you left in the first place.
Another reason for my renewed affection is that spring is finally here, everybody is coming out of their winter-induced comas, the sun is shining, the days are getting warmer and longer, the air is filled with the smell of blossoming plants and there is plenty to do and see. Spring and the beginning of summer is arguably the time of year when Sofia is at its most charming – it becomes that bright-eyed boy with the disarming smile whom you simply cannot resist.
But perhaps most importantly of all, I’ve been spending a lot of time in the company of people who were visiting Sofia from abroad – and there is nothing like seeing the city through their eyes to make me discover it anew and fall in love with it all over again.
I first had this feeling last spring, when much of April, May and June were spent hanging out with old and new friends visiting from abroad (the fun-fun-filled visit of my favorite twins is documented here and here), randomly encountering travelers and the regular hunting down of foreigners I had to find and interview for the weekly column “The Road to Sofia” that I was writing for the One Week in Sofia magazine at the time.* This year, it started again when I worked for the Sofia Film Fest and spent two weeks running around the city in the company of filmmakers from all over the world and more recently, when I hung out with my dear friends Mark, Melody and their daughter Jenna, and read some of my favorite blogs by ex-pats in Bulgaria, Karolinka and Whitney.
I love hosting, hanging out and showing around Sofia to visitors from abroad, as well as hearing their stories for many reasons, but perhaps the biggest, and not entirely altruistic one is that – although I often take them to my usual haunts and do things I would normally do, being with them makes me experience the city through their eyes, rediscover it and fall in love with it all over again.
Simply as a resident of Sofia, I’m more likely to notice and be consumed by the usual downfalls of living in this city, from the petty annoyances to the pretty serious and horrific symptoms of an inefficient city: the broken sidewalks, the packs of sometimes aggressive homeless dogs, the shameless rip-off taxi drivers, the persistent lack of universally good customer service, the mostly inefficient public transportation (although I hear the metro is quite good, if it fits into one’s daily route), the relative homogeneity and blatant xenophobia, racism and homophobia, the lack of infrastructure to make biking around the city safe and accessible, the questionable new architecture and the tragic fate of much of the old. It’s a very long list.
And it’s not that I ever forget about these things. I think about them all the time (also in the general context of the difficult decision to stay and live in Bulgaria). It’s just that it becomes easier to overlook them in favor of all the great things about Sofia (and, by proxy, many of the things I love about living in Bulgaria) when I am with people who can’t stop marveling at them: the lush parks, the delicious (and cheap) food, the cool bars, the old Socialist monuments (especially when they become a platform for contemporary art discussions), the view from my flat, the super affordable taxis (when they don’t cheat), the charming cobbled streets, the proximity of the mountain, the coziness of being in a city of two+ million and always running into friends on the street. Kind of like that boyfriend whose issues you’re all hung up about but who becomes irresistibly appealing when your friends gush over how great he is, having visitors who notice all the great things about Sofia makes me stop taking them for granted and appreciate them, and – in big and small ways, fall in love with Sofia again and again.
I don’t say all of this lightly. My fraught relationship with the city started about eight years ago, when I came back to live here after spending half of my life up to that point abroad. I came back tentatively and without plans to stay permanently. Although I continued to travel extensively, in that almost-decade I made Sofia my home.
I am still very much torn, on an almost daily basis, over the dilemma of whether to stay and live in Sofia or to go elsewhere (or, to put it in other words, on top of the proverbial dash). Luckily, the times we live in make the dilemma bearable, if not entirely avoidable – the national, political, economic and even technical impediments to living not in a single place, but rather between different places are becoming fewer and fewer.
Because I strongly believe that home is where the heart is, Sofia will always be a home, as a part of my heart will always be here. I will always think of it and sometimes even miss it when I am away and my heart will grow more enamored with the city with every visitor and at every return from traveling.
But before my inconstant lover of a city and I get sick of each other (again), I’m already making plans for my next trip, only so that I can come back with a renewed affection.
*The perfectly illustrative photo above was taken last spring by – and with – one lovely visitor to Sofia, who even submitted to be interviewed by me. Thanks, B.!